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The Social Realist as Entrepreneur: Thomas Hirschhorn

Unlike the reality TV producer anything a successful fine artist does becomes framed by his or her position within the fine art system. The artist becomes what Minow Kwon describes as a ‘delegate’, an official representative, of the art system (2002: 139). Kwon cites the art historian and critic Grant Kester who notes that the artist understood as delegate of the bourgeois art system ‘confirms and legitimates his or her political power through the act of literally representing or exhibiting … [a fine art] community’ (in Kwon 2002: 139–140). The artist is given comfort and power by the fine art community, and can never really escape from it into the world outside.

Take the case of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument, 2002. This is a prime instance of a ‘collaborative’ and ‘participatory’ project that is a gamespace that belongs principally to the artist due to the pressure of artistic convention. For the occasion of Documenta 11 Hirschhorn decided to construct a grunge-installation monument to the surrealist philosopher George Bataille. Moreover, he decided that this monument must be situated outside the principal venues of Documenta, the middle-class fine art festival that takes over the city of Kassel every four or five years. He chose as his location the Friedrich-Wöhler Siedlung, a mixed Turkish-German social housing complex in a low socio-economic suburb of Kassel.

It seems self-evident that Hirschhorn was seeking nitty-gritty street credibility but remarkably he claims ‘I had never thought the Bataille Monument could be discussed and criticised as a social art project.’ (in Doherty 2004: 137). He does, however, qualify this statement by adding ‘I do think social issues can be raised through an art project. It is a question of the surroundings, the environment, the reality. That is a goal of my work.’ (in Doherty 2004: 137) [emphasis added]. Like every artist motivated by the discourse of individual creativity Hirschhorn seeks difference. And the low socio-economic status of the Turkish and German community in this social housing complex were able to provide it. They become part of Hirschhorn’s palette, and the artist’s dedication to his work is indicated when he notes that, despite his penchant for social realistic situations, ‘one thing has always been clear for me: I am an artist and not a social worker.’ (in Doherty 2004: 137).

It would appear that we have some contradictions here, on the one hand Hirschhorn wants ‘reality’, which in the case of the Bataille Monument means the milieu of socially marginalised people who need work; and on the other hand he declares that he is an artist and not a social worker: which indicates that he recognises and, understandably, values his extremely privileged position as an international fine art star. The comment ‘I am an artist and not a social worker’ deserves attention because it refers so directly to the strategy of bringing art into life.

When Hirschhorn states that ‘I am an artist’ he is relying upon a raft of conventional suppositions concerning the role of the artist. From a creative-deconstructive perspective there is no reason why an artist might not be a social worker. After all Tiravanija makes no such assumptions when he equates making art with cookery. Moreover, in the final chapter we will also consider the case of the Indian art collective Sarai who adopt creative practice for the purposes of a species of ‘social work’.

 Returning to Hirschhorn’s project for Documenta 11, his choice of venue was successful in that he was able to assemble a team of people living in the Friedrich-Wöhler Siedlung who were willing to work on the monument for the eight euros an hour he paid them. And to oversee the construction Hirschhorn moved into an apartment in the Siedlung. Managing the labour force to build his work of art was certainly an entrepreneurial achievement on Hirschhorn’s part. He even convinced the people working for him to return his belongings when some of them broke into his apartment and stole his laptop, video, hi-fi and camera equipment. The very fact that they did that indicates the significant social divide between them and the artist. Like many artists of the 1990s and 2000s Hirschhorn acts as an entrepreneur, which is to say a boss, albeit a more or less enlightened boss (less, in the case of Santiago Sierra). He chooses a needy social group for the purposes of providing his work of art with reality, and in this sense his approach is not dissimilar to the producers of reality-TV. But we dismiss reality-TV as pulp realism. In contrast Hirschhorn is an artist and his Bataille Monument is a significant work of art that will enter into the annals of art history; and from 2002 onward the previously invisible everyday entity that is the Friedrich-Wöhler Siedlung will be remembered in conjunction with the ‘social sculpture’ of Thomas Hirschhorn but the people who helped him make the monument remain invisible.

Contrast Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument with the Arts Council supported reality-TV project The Singing Estate, 2006 which took its participants from a Friedrich-Wöhler Siedlung-like housing estate in Oxford. The aim of this project was to form a choir from inhabitants of the estate with the goal of performing in the Albert Hall, London. The artist involved in this venture was the choral conductor Ivor Settlefield. But unlike the Bataille Monument the focus of The Singing Estate was not the artist individual but the people from the housing estate. Settlefield’s task was to train sixty inhabitants of the housing estate to a level of skill commensurate with the goal. After understandable vicissitudes this goal was attained and the participants benefited enormously in personal terms. In stark contrast the ‘participants’ in the Hirschhorn project were thrust into the background as passive, paid manual labourers who were bleached out by the limelight projected onto the artistic genius of Thomas Hirschhorn.

All that Hirschhorn needed to do was to credit the names of the people who helped him build his Bataille Monument and the criticism I have just elaborated would evaporate. But the fact that Hirschhorn does not mention those who helped him is not his fault so much as it is the fault of the institutional rules of the art game, which understands that game as belonging to the artist. We can see that this perspective is purely conventional if we swing our attention over to film were crediting everyone involved in a production is the convention.

But the case of Thomas Hirschhorn is useful because it identifies a fundamental problem in fine art at the turn of the century which is that it is very difficult for art to take on a ‘political’ dimension when the art system remains driven by the traditional apotheosis of the artist individual and the elevation of the work of art to precious object.

We can also compare and contrast Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument with Vectorial Elevation. In both instances there is an artist individual but whereas that individual takes over the game in the Bataille Monument in the case of Vectorial Elevation the individual hands over the work to its audience. One can also note that the term ‘work’ suggests something that is finished, which is not the case in Vectorial Elevation. Instead Vectorial Elevation exhibits one of the key features of the game which is its capacity for a multiplicity of permutations. One can also point to the fact that in the Bataille Monument the participants in the were reduced to the condition of labourers whereas in Vectorial Elevation they are directly involved in the process of creative construction. But to be provocative I would like to suggest that The Singing Estate is the most successful of the three instances.

The Need for Design: Body Movies, 2001

The next work I would like to examine reveals the considerable difficulties facing the construction of art games, even for outstanding digital artists such as Lozano-Hemmer. The work in question is Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, 2001. What is especially interesting about this work is that the interactive game designed by Lozano-Hemmer is not especially successful in practice. What becomes evident is that the artist becomes entangled in his own preoccupations and does not fully consider the role of the viewer. When viewers play this art game according to the rules laid down by Lozano-Hemmer the resulting interaction is not especially creative. But the apparatus that the artist constructs unintentionally allows more creative viewers to ignore the rules and play much more interesting games.

 Lozano-Hemmer reports that the initial inspiration for Body Movies was the work of the Dutch painter Samuel Van Hoogstraten a master of ‘perceptual deceit such as trompe l'oeil and anamorphosis’ (Lozano-Hemmer 2001) and in particular his engraving The Shadow Dance made in Rotterdam in 1675 which shows a source of light placed at ground level and ‘the shadows of actors taking on angelic or demonic characteristics depending on their size’ (Lozano-Hemmer 2001). I cite Lozano-Hemmer’s commentary on Body Movies because the most effective aspect of the actual installation became the very simple idea of the giant shadow play.

Like Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000, Body Movies is an interactive installation installed in a public square, in this case the Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam. For Body Movies Lozano-Hemmer made use of the very large façade of the Pathé Cinema which is normally glass fronted. For the purposes of Body Movies this façade was covered in a white screen material so that the façade could be used as gigantic projection screen. Powerful low lying lights set some distance from the cinema would project the shadows of passers by onto the giant screen. People who were some distance from the screen appeared very large whereas those who were closer were smaller.

In retrospect, if Lozano-Hemmer had simply provided this modern day replication of Van Hoogstraten’s The Shadow Dance then Body Movies would have been a remarkable instance of a minimalist interactive installation. But being a creative artist Lozano-Hemmer has been trained and conditioned to manipulate and transform rather than to simply reproduce. Accordingly he created a much more complex apparatus in which images of people in the streets of Rotterdam, Madrid, Mexico and Montreal were projected onto the side of the Pathé cinema (90m long x 20m tall), Rotterdam, by digital projectors fed with images from a computer. These images were then washed out by intense light streaming from two 7000 watt xenon lamp sources placed at ground level. As soon as people walk on the square at night their shadows are projected and the portraits are revealed within them. The game that Lozano-Hemmer devises then is one in which the viewer needs to align their shadow in such a way as to reveal the still photograph of someone in a street somewhere else in the world. To encourage the viewer in this endeavour an audible click echoes across the public square whenever a shadow uncovers one of the images.

A complex digital apparatus achieves such effects. And their complexity is evident from Lozano-Hemmer’s own description:

Three networked computers control the installation: a camera server, a video tracker and a robotic controller cued by MIDI signals. The camera server feeds video images to a PC over Ethernet twenty times per second. A custom-made software programming in Delphi analyses the video detecting the edges of the shadows. The computer vision system determines whether shadows are covering portraits in the current scene and when a portrait is revealed the hotspot turns white and remains activated for a few seconds. A wav [audio] file sound is also triggered to give feedback to the participants in the square. (2001)

One can see from this passage that Lozano-Hemmer is being drawn into one of the pitfalls of digital art which is obsession with technology. When the technology becomes an end in itself then aesthetic quality tends to suffer. Unaware of this problem Lozano-Hemmer installed a video monitor and loud speaker behind one of the exposed ground level windows of the Pathé cinema so that viewers had a chance to read the instructions on how to play his game.

The video of the installation (Lozano-Hemmer 2001) reveals the problems in the work very clearly. The people who evidently read the instructions and/or responded to the audible clicks that rang out across the square in the proper Pavlovian fashion can be seen dutifully manoeuvring their bodies to reveal the static photographs of people underneath. But when they have done this they appear to be at a loss with what to do next. The best responses we see on the video is people waving their shadow arms or bobbing their heads up and down in an attempt to instill some animation into the deadly stasis of the photographic image. It does not look inspiring either for the participant or to others looking on in the square. In his commentary on the work Lozano-Hemmer reveals his intention that people would be able to ‘match or “embody” a portrait by walking around the square and changing the scale of their shadow’ (Lozano-Hemmer 2001) but in this case the theoretical enchantment of the concept of ‘embodiment’ is not transmitted into practice. The actual ‘embodiment’ is dull and boring. The game does not work, it does not facilitate creative engagement in the manner of Vectorial Elevation.

But that is not the end of the story of Body Movies. If we watch the video we see other people who neither read the instructions nor listen to the Pavlovian clicks and simply play their own games which are closer to the simpler Van Hoogstraten model than Lozano-Hemmer’s complex elaboration. And what is remarkable is that some of these games are highly creative. In other words the installation does work! But not the way the artist intended it.


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Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002, Kassel, Documenta 11

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002, Kassel, Documenta 11. Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002, Kassel, Documenta 11.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002, Kassel, Documenta 11. The communal library adjoining the monument. Photo: tussentaalenbeeld. The construction is made out of hardboard and brown packing tape. Three Turkish boys monitor the reading of books by Bataille.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002, Kassel, Documenta 11. The text reads: 'Information about the Georges Bataille Monument, Quality = no; Energie = yes; Best is always less good!!!'. This somewhat cryptic text is reminiscent of works by Joseph Beuys, and it does appear that Hirschhorn shares Beuys' concept of a 'social sculpture' founded in a utopianism steeped in romanticism. Photo: Hector.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, 2001. Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, 2001. Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam. People play with their giant shadows. In addition their shadows reveal photographs of people in similar public places in different parts of the world.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, The Shadow Dance, 1675. This piece created in Rotterdam served as an inspiration for Lozano-Hemmer's Body Movies, 2001.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, The Shadow Dance, 1675. This work was created in Rotterdam and served as an inspiration for Lozano-Hemmer's Body Movies, 2001.